Report Of The President's Commission On
The Accident At Three Mile Island           > TMI-2 > Kemeny

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The Accident




Another area of our investigation dealt with the questions of whether various agencies made adequate preparations for an emergency and whether their responses to the emergency were satisfactory. Our finding is negative on both questions.

We are disturbed both by the highly uneven quality of emergency plans and by the problems created by multiple jurisdictions in the case of a radiation emergency. Most emergency plans rely on prompt action at the local level to initiate a needed evacuation or to take other protective action. We found an almost total lack of detailed plans in the local communities around Three Mile Island. It is one of the many ironies of this event that the most relevant planning by local  authorities took place during the accident. In an accident in which prompt defensive steps are necessary within a matter of hours, insufficient advance planning could prove extremely dangerous.

We favor the centralization of emergency planning and response in a single agency at the federal level with close coordination between it and state and local agencies. Such agencies would need expert input from many other organizations, but there should be a single agency that has the responsibility both for assuring that adequate planning takes place and for taking charge of the response to the emergency. This will require organizational changes, since the agencies now best organized to deal with emergencies tend to have most of their experience with such events as floods and storms, rather than with radiological events. And, insofar as radiological events require steps that go beyond those in a normal emergency, careful additional planning is needed.

A central concept in the current siting policy of the NRC is that reactors should be located in a "low population zone" (LPZ), an area around the plant in which appropriate protective action could be taken for the residents in the event of an accident. However, this concept is implemented in a strange, unnatural, and round-about manner. To determine the size of the LPZ, the utility calculates the amount of radiation released in a very serious hypothetical accident. Using geographical and meteorological data, the utility then calculates that area within which an individual would receive 25,000 millirems or more to the whole body, during the entire course of the accident. This area is the LPZ. The 25,000-millirem standard is an extremely large dose, many times more serious than that received by any individual during the entire TMI accident.

The LPZ approach has serious shortcomings. First, because of the extremely large dose by which its size is determined, the LPZs for many nuclear power plants are relatively small areas, 2 miles in the case of TMI. Second, if an accident as serious as the one used to calculate the LPZ were actually to occur, it is evident that many people living outside the LPZ would receive smaller, but still massive doses of radiation. Third, the TMI accident shows that the LPZ has little relevance to the protection of the public -- the NRC itself was considering evacuation distances as far as 20 miles, even though the accident was far less serious than those postulated during siting. We have therefore concluded that the entire concept is flawed.

We recommend that the LPZ concept be abandoned in siting and in emergency planning. A variety of possible accidents should be considered during siting, particularly "smaller" accidents which have a higher probability of occurring. For each such accident, one should calculate probable levels of radiation releases at a variety of distances to decide the kinds of protective action that are necessary and feasible. Such protective actions may range from evacuation of an area near the plant, to the distribution of potassium iodide to protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine, to a simple instruction to people several miles from the plant to stay indoors for a specified period of time. Only such an analysis can predict the true consequences of a radiological incident and determine whether a particular site is suitable for a nuclear power plant. Similarly, emergency plans should have built into them a variety of responses to a variety of possible kinds of accidents. State and local agencies must be prepared with the appropriate response once information is available on the nature of an accident and its likely levels of releases.

The response to the emergency was dominated by an atmosphere of almost total confusion. There was lack of communication at all levels. Many key recommendations were made by individuals who were not in pos- session of accurate information, and those who managed the accident were slow to realize the significance and implications of the events that had taken place. While we have attempted to address these shortcomings in our recommendations, it is important to reiterate the fundamental philosophy we stated above: One must do everything possible to prevent accidents of this seriousness, but at the same time assume that such an accident may occur and be prepared for response to the resulting emergency. The fact that too many individuals and organizations were not aware of the dimensions of serious accidents at nuclear power plants accounts for a great deal of the lack of preparedness and the poor quality of the response.